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BOUND TO PLEASE / Driving toward a future of blue skies and fresh air

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterThe Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future

By Levi Tillemann

Simon & Schuster, pp338

Hooray for the free market! Hooray for government regulations! And hooray for air pollution!

Well, maybe air pollution doesn’t deserve a cheer, but according to a new book called “The Great Race,” those are three of the driving forces behind the development of electric cars.

Author Levi Tillemann, who has headed a small engine company and advised the U.S. Department of Energy, writes about a chemist named Arie Haagen-Smit who was studying pineapples and other plants in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Something in the air was killing his greenery — smog. But no one knew where it came from.

“On a pea-soup day,” Tillemann writes, “he set up a massive fan to draw ‘30,000 cubic feet of Pasadena air’ through an industrial freezer. The frigid air shed its moisture, and Smit distilled this synthetic dew into a few tablespoons of vile brown sludge.” Chemical analysis revealed that car exhaust was the culprit.

This discovery eventually led to California adopting strict air pollution regulations. Because California is such a big market, this affected the auto industry worldwide. American automakers reacted by deploying lawyers to fight the new rules, while Japanese automakers — keenly aware of their status as “guests” in the U.S. market — deployed engineers to comply with them.

At least, that was an early pattern. As Tillemann fleshes out his story, it becomes more complex. When Japan passed its own strict air pollution law in 1976, big Japanese companies such as Toyota opposed it, causing a domestic “public relations fiasco.” And in 1987, U.S. auto giant General Motors won a solar-vehicle race across Australia with a car that used revolutionary “regenerative braking” to recapture its own kinetic energy and convert it back into electricity. This technology would later be used in Toyota’s best-selling Prius.

As Japanese and U.S. carmakers struggled to meet government regulations and competed to outdo each other, they moved toward the holy grail of a zero-emissions vehicle by fits and starts and occasional leaps.

Nowadays, one might expect China to join this “Great Race.” Like the United States and Japan before it, China is a rapidly growing economy with a severe air pollution problem. Tillemann writes that China is aware that its internal-combustion vehicle industry is unlikely to catch up with the advanced standards of other major economies, so it has pursued a policy of “leapfrogging” its competitors by focusing on electric vehicles, a field so new that other nations have less of a head start.

However, China’s approach has been severely protectionist, according to Tillemann, and insulation from competition has smothered Chinese progress even while brands like Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi and Nissan continue to forge ahead. In 2013, a single U.S. start-up — Tesla — built more electric vehicles than all Chinese companies combined.

Regardless of who comes out ahead in the “Great Race,” we’re all going to be winners in that we can literally breathe easier.

So hooray for the free market! Hooray for government regulations! And down with air pollution!

Where to read

In the backseat of your self-driving electric car while it takes you wherever you want to go. You don’t have such a car? Just wait a few years. You will.

Maruzen price: ¥3,920 (as of May 13)

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